Talking Points

Protests erupted in Port-au-Prince. PHOTO: Valerie Baeriswyl / AFP
  1. The political situation in Haiti disintegrated after coup claims
  2. Joe Biden and Xi Jinping set the tone (frosty) in their first call
  3. The WHO team in Wuhan published limited findings
  4. Few people, incl. Republic senators, paid mind to Trump's trial
  5. Facebook tested a new model for its 'news' feed: less politics
  6. Royal Dutch Shell forecast the inevitable demise of its oil business
  7. Softbank reported an extraordinary 21x net profit year-on-year
  8. Israel urged allies to quash ICC war crimes investigations
  9. Myanmar's junta declared military rule 'will be different this time'
  10. The Tokyo Olympics boss Mori resigned over sexist comments

Deep Dive

Dogecoin prices are truly, in the relevant parlance, 'very wow'. PHOTO: Bloomberg

A butterfly flaps its wings and a hurricane forms on the other side of the globe. Sounds a little quaint, doesn't it? Let's see if we can formulate a more modern expression for chaos theory: a billionaire sends a tweet and a glacier bursts on the other side of the globe. How's that?

It's a doge eat doge world

Apologies in advance, Elon Musk features heavily in this Deep Dive. The 21st century Howard Hughes, fresh from giddying up r/WallStreetBets last month, has turned his attention to cryptocurrencies. On the first of the month the Tesla CEO and professional pot-stirrer threw his support behind Bitcoin, predicting that it is "on the verge of getting broad acceptance by conventional finance people". Music to the ears of those holding Bitcoin – up 300% this year alone, the price surged 14% on Musk's endorsement. But moral support wasn't all he offered; in the same week Tesla announced it had moved 8% of its cash reserve into Bitcoin, buying up $1.5b of it . That saw another double-digit jump in value. The timing of this will undoubtedly raise eyebrows at the Securities and Exchange Commission, but Musk is not as deferential to the regulator as the average mortal is.

The tweets continued after this, but the entrepreneur lent his market-moving munificence to another cryptocurrency, Dogecoin . If you're new to this one, you should know it has nothing to do with Renaissance Venetian rulers. Instead, it has everything to do with a nearly-decade-old meme about an apprehensive-looking shiba inu (doge is an intentional mispronunciation of dog). And it is, by any measure. a joke. The Bitcoin alternative has been used to raise money to send the Jamaican bobsled team to the 2014 Olympics, among other even funnier (or dumber, depending on your perspective) things. But as Musk tweeted about buying dogecoins for his one-year-old, and added $DOGE to his Twitter bio, its long-dormant value exploded. A 1,250% rally since the beginning of the year has seen this joke cryptocurrency top out at a market capitalisation of $10b.

Your computer is overheating

There is a suggestion that Dogecoin is just the next GameStop – it is not. While the GameStop short-squeeze wasted a few billion dollars and dented confidence in the US financial system, these cryptocurrency rallies bear a universal risk. Bitcoins are created in a decentralised process called mining, whereby banks of supercomputers around the world compete to solve 'proof of work' math equations that validate every transaction. For this crucial work, the miners are rewarded with Bitcoins. Highly-specialised, often custom-built supercomputers are deployed for tackling these equations (some 150 quintillion of them), each and every day .

A lot of electricity is required to run and cool these Bitcoin mining 'rigs'. By some estimates, a single transaction requires the same amount of energy as what the average American household consumes over a three week period. In 2018, cryptocurrency miners pumped 23 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Now it's over 37 megatons per annum. And while there are a handful of operations being run off renewables, it is estimated that at least 60% of the power consumed by Bitcoin miners comes from fossil-fuels. Due to the margins involved, less scrupulous miners chase the cheapest electricity they can: state-subsidised coal power. In China, which accounts for a significant portion of all Bitcoin production, this comes from the dirtiest emitters in the coal-rich Xinjiang province .

The upshot of all this is that when Bitcoin experiences a price surge – for example, when the world's most highly-valued automaker reveals a substantial stake in it – the competition over mining becomes more fierce. More supercomputers are thrown at the problem and the need to run them off the cheapest possible electricity becomes categorical. Crypto-emissions, which are already equivalent to a medium-sized country, soar. And the world heats up. Even the coldest corners, high up in the Himalayas, where glaciers sat sturdy for thousands of years, are losing their footing. And crashing down into the valley below .

Editor's note: Please rest assured that we are not suggesting that Elon Musk pay reparations to Uttarakhand. Rather, as the world becomes more enmeshed, the consequences of seemingly innocuous activities reverberate more widely than ever. The inkl team has a privileged view of this news cycle. That is, an elevated one. Working with a critical mass of fine publishers affords us (and, hopefully, by extension you) the distance to trace the underlying threads and the vertices at which they meet.


Worldlywise

For a vanishing few days China was in the Clubhouse. PHOTO: AFP

I refuse to join any Clubhouse that would have me as a member

As you may recall, we were all looking for something novel to do with our phones in the middle of 2020 . With huge swathes of the global population isolated, quarantined, or locked down, it was the perfect moment to explore/procrastinate with a shiny new app. That app was Clubhouse, an audio-only social media network that acts as part-group-call and part-narrowcast-Ted-Talk. In a world over-saturated with images and videos, it's a welcome change in tone. Signups snowballed over the new year; its valuation rose by $900m in just two months. In late January and early February two well-attended conversations by prominent Clubhouse members (Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg) drove hundreds of thousands of new users to the platform.

Everyone wanted in, especially in the People's Republic of China . It's obviously much harder to censor voice communications at scale than it is text; and China's Apple users flooded onto the app. The chat-rooms delved into all manner of verboten topics: the Xinjiang crackdown, relations with Taiwan and Hong Kong, and even the big one – the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It was, in other words, doomed to be censored. After just a few short days of vibrant conversations, ClubHouse disappeared from China. One member put it thus, "We enjoyed it with the full knowledge that the excitement would be fleeting. This is probably a unique experience for mainland online users."

But don't just browse stories about China's moment in the sun with open conversation – many of which smack of Western paternalism. Censorship, and the lack thereof, cuts both ways. With content moderation left up to its users, rather than any company guidelines on inappropriate material, lies run rampant through Clubhouse rooms. American healthcare professionals are now fighting another digital battle against the willing ignorance or calculated spoiling of coronavirus disinformation. Clubhouse rules are there are no rules.

The remains of a Fallata village razed to the ground. PHOTO: AFP

Darfur déjà vu

In 2003, Sudanese rebels from the country's major non-Arab tribes (the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa) rose up against an opppressive Arab government in Khartoum. The autocratic president Omar al-Bashir sent his fearsome Janjaweed militias into the restive regions of Darfur. The Janjaweed drew their numbers from Darfur's Arab tribes, many of which had long-running feuds with their non-Arab neighbours. They were armed by the government and set loose; what transpired is now recognised as a state-backed campaign of genocide against the non-Arab Darfuri . Roughly 500,000 were killed, and millions raped, wounded, or displaced.

Omar al-Bashir was deposed two years ago. And Sudan is slowly transitioning to joint military-civilian rule. Progress has been slow, but in the capital it is palpable. For now the situation in Darfur remains fraught. The Arab tribes which so eagerly joined the Janjaweed to enact hideous violence on their neighbours did not face repercussions, indeed they remained empowered and armed by Khartoum right up until Omar al-Bashir's downfall. In 2021 their militias are again fanning out across West and South Darfur. Over two days in January, some 250 people were killed in fighting between Arab and Masalit communities . Details are scarce but latest figures reveal a further 220 have been slain since.

In 2003, Darfur was a cause célèbre that the world couldn't solve. It still hasn't. And the United Nations has reported that 130,000 Darfuri have been displaced. There are serious concerns that the violence could intensify. The UN has good reason to worry: its security mission to Darfur is in the process of drawing down, reducing the little external stability the region can claim. It must be reversed immediately.


The best of times

Please do not try to eat one. PHOTO: ABC

A humble fish (genius)

For years, scientists have been unable to use lab-grown stem cells to kickstart muscle repair. But this week, researchers were able to apply their newfound understanding of the process to help mice with muscle injuries recover. The missing link in the knowledge came from observing the common zebrafish . By doing so, researchers saw immune cells known as macrophages nourish stem cells individually to start the healing process. Through this, the breakthrough could soon be applied to the elderly and to people with muscular dystrophy or limb damage.

Mars is getting mighty crowded

Also this week, scientists added two more items to the list of breakthroughs achieved during the pandemic: two probes reaching Mars . China’s Tianwen-1 probe will eventually make its way to the planet’s surface in search of underground water-ice and remnants of ancient life. The UAE’s Al-Aman (aka Hope) will bring a different perspective: studying the planet’s atmosphere, as well as hydrogen, oxygen, and ozone levels. Next week, America’s Perseverance hopes to reach Mars too.


The worst of times

A gloom settles over the bay. PHOTO: AFP

The road forks in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has confirmed that it will strictly enforce its ban of dual nationality this week. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers will be stripped of their consular protection . The clarification came after a detained Canadian dual citizen was forced to declare a single nationality last week. The city-state’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that the ruling has existed since 1996 — but was not previously enforced. As a result, Hong Kong’s Chinese-born dual nationals must choose between having no consular protection, or renouncing their Chinese citizenship.

Tigray is starving

Right now 80% of Ethiopia's restive Tigray region remains cut off from humanitarian aid . Tens of thousands are at risk of starving to death. That President Abiy Ahmed is yet to be stripped of his Nobel Peace Prize is a disgrace. Have we learned nothing from Yemen?


Weekend Reading

The image

Italians Salvatore Caruso and Fabio Fognini caused a stir at the Australian Open with a vibrant verbal clash. The famously-dour tennis world is not ready for All-Italian matches just yet. Photograph supplied by AFP.

The quote

“She is this wonderful, soft, very gentle woman with an authentic approach to problems but, boy, under that soft glove there is a hard hand and a strong will behind it. She is going to rock the place.”

European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde cannot hide her enthusiasm for the expected nomination of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to the head of the World Trade Organisation. She will be the first woman and the first African to helm the global regulator. The former Nigerian Finance Minister earned her title 'Okonjo Wahala' (Okonjo the trouble maker) with swingeing anti-corruption drives.

The numbers

18%

- Nearly a fifth of the total global deaths in 2018 were caused by pollution from power plants, factories, cars, and planes. We have poisoned the very air we breathe, and 8 million people died of it in a single year. A shocking and preventable tragedy.

11,100 parts per million

- The amount of lye, or sodium hydroxide, that a hacker tried to pump into a Florida town's water supply. This is 100 times more than the safe levels in municipal water supplies – luckily an eagle-eyed water treatment worker noticed the remote changes and nullified them.

The headline

"Pigs can be trained to use computer joysticks, say researchers" The Guardian . Uh huh, we're teaching pigs, a species that we slaughter 1.5b of annually, to use the technology we operate drones with. Scientists are always asking 'can we' when perhaps they ought be asking 'should we'.

The special mention

Americans farewelled Larry Flynt this week. Some did so with great fondness for the free-wheeling iconoclast. Many others would be mentally dancing on the grave of America's foremost pornographer and 'sleaze merchant'. Regardless of your appraisal of Hustler's impact on American morality, we can all thank him for helping establish the constitutional protection for ruthlessly parodying public figures.

A few choice long-reads

  • Trade wars, Trump, privacy, and anti-trust suits; to Tim Cook's Apple, these are but passing distractions. Businessweek explores deep inside Apple's $2.3tr fortress.
  • Endless soy crops are changing the very landscape of Brazil, creating newfound wealth in the West. Financial Times asks a simple question: at what cost?
  • To combat evil you first must name it – correctly. The Economist makes the case that 'genocide' is the wrong word for what is happening in Xinjiang.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting